The coronavirus pandemic has been raging for more than a year now, and during the course of that time the eyes of the world focused first on China, then on Europe and later America. But right now, everyone is looking closely at India, where the situation is spiraling out of control: its health emergency is beyond any other country’s worst experience with Covid-19, measured by the number of daily deaths and new infections.
The international community is responding by sending equipment to a country lacking just about everything – ventilators, oxygen, medication and hospital beds – while scientists say the situation illustrates the importance of faster vaccination in developing countries. “Until we’re all protected, nobody is protected,” has become the new mantra.
With a population of more than 1.3 billion, India is more like a continent than like a country. Certainly no other nation had produced so many daily cases: on Tuesday it added 320,000 new infections and reported 2,771 deaths, slightly below Monday’s figure but not significant enough to talk about a change in the trend. The 14-day cumulative incidence rate continues to rise, and on Tuesday it had reached 285 cases per 100,000 people, according to Oxford University’s data repository Our World in Data. And as noted by Fernando Simón, head of Spain’s coronavirus emergency response, these figures may only be the tip of the iceberg, as India’s detection capabilities are very limited.
Against this backdrop, Western nations have pledged to send aid. Spain’s government spokesperson María Jesús Montero on Tuesday announced a shipment of healthcare material for India. Meanwhile, the European Union is trying to coordinate its member states’ response and cover the transportation costs. Brussels is planning to send “a shipment of urgently needed oxygen, medicine and equipment in the coming days” through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, the European Commission said in a statement on Tuesday. The emergency mechanism was activated on Friday following a plea for international assistance by New Delhi, and it will coordinate contributions by EU member states.
“Alarmed by the epidemiological situation in India,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a Twitter message on Sunday. “We are ready to support. The EU is pooling resources to respond rapidly to India’s request for assistance.” So far, contributing countries include Ireland (with 700 oxygen concentrators, one oxygen generator and 365 ventilators), Belgium (with 9,000 doses of the antiviral drug Remdesivir), Romania (with 80 oxygen concentrators and 75 oxygen cylinders), Luxembourg (with 58 ventilators), Portugal (with 5,503 vials of Remdesivir and 20,000 liters of oxygen a week) and Sweden (120 ventilators). France, Italy, Austria and Finland have also pledged aid. “The EU stands in full solidarity with the Indian people and is ready to do our utmost to support them at this critical time,” said Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič in a statement.
The United States is also sending oxygen concentrators, medicines and vaccines, according to a White House statement following a conversation between US President Joe Biden and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
All of this aid is “very necessary” according to Gerardo Álvarez-Uría, a Spanish doctor who heads the infectious disease unit at Bathalapalli Hospital in the Indian state of Andra Pradesh. The center is owned and operated by the Vicente Ferrer Foundation, a non-profit group founded in 1969 by the Spanish Jesuit missionary Vicente Ferrer. “There is a tremendous shortage of ventilators, oxygen and medicine. The system receives very little investment and technical resources are even more scarce than personnel resources,” said Álvarez-Uría.
The crisis in India is underscoring the need to speed up the vaccination process in developing countries. Daniel López Acuña, a former emergency director at the World Health Organization (WHO), stressed that we are dealing with a pandemic, and that bringing it under control in a given country does not mean there is no more risk. One of the variants in circulation make the virus potentially more infectious and resistant to vaccines, which could cause additional problems. López Acuña also warned that inequalities in global vaccination could generate “significant problems for pandemic control.” As Marcos López Hoyos, president of the Spanish Immunology Society, said, “the longer the virus is in circulation and the more infections there are, the higher the likelihood of mutations that will bring trouble.”
Rafael Vilasanjuan, analysis director at ISGlobal, a health institute backed by the La Caixa Foundation, underscored that “we will be at risk until the virus is controlled in the entire world. If governments in developed countries only worry about vaccinating their own population, this will be a poor favor indeed.” A member of the Gavi global alliance coordinating the Covax plan to bring vaccines to low and middle-income countries, this expert noted that this is the only way to distribute doses in a more equitable way. But López Hoyos is also asking governments to start donating vaccines before having a surplus. On Tuesday, Spain said it would start contributing vaccines when 50% of its population has been immunized.
India also happens to be the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer. The Covax initiative is lagging behind substantially, partly because the country halted exports in order to use the doses on its own citizens. “We’re afraid that with this crisis it will happen again; this kind of nationalism should be avoided,” said Vilasanjuan.
So far, Covax has distributed just 52 million doses out of the two billion it hopes to deliver by the end of the year, although this expert believes that the pace will start to pick up now, just as it has in Europe. “But that also requires economic resources. Six billion out of the €8 billion required have already been raised, but a further €2 billion are needed to ensure there is no problem with purchases,” added Vilasanjuan.
While citizens continue to get vaccinated, countries are imposing restrictions to prevent the variant detected in India from spreading across the globe. “There is an urgent need to sequence the greatest possible number of samples to know whether it is expanding outside the country, as happened in the United Kingdom. And a containment strategy has to be contemplated,” said López Acuña.
Spain on Tuesday urged all Spaniards currently in India to “return as soon as possible.” And the Spanish Cabinet on Tuesday approved a mandatory quarantine for anyone arriving from India.
⚠️La Embajada de España recomienda a los españoles que se encuentren temporalmente en #India regresen a 🇪🇦 lo antes posible. En caso de emergencia contacten con la Embajada o Consulado General en Mumbai.Más info en recomendaciones de viaje: https://t.co/Hq4xQDEgnm@MAECgob— Emb. España en India (@EmbEspIndia) April 27, 2021
With additional reporting by Guillermo Abril.
English version by Susana Urra.